By Umar Manzoor Shah
Karnataka, India, Dec 2 2022 – Deeepti Rani (13) lives with her mother in a dilapidated dwelling near a railway track in India’s southern state of Karnataka. The mother-daughter duo sells paperbacks on trains for a living.
Four months ago, a man in his mid-fifties visited them. Masquerading as a businessman hailing from India’s capital, Delhi, he first expressed dismay over the family’s dismal conditions. Then he offered help. The man asked Deepti if she wanted to accompany him to Delhi, where he could find her a decent job as a sales clerk or a housemaid. He also told Deepti’s mother that if allowed to go to Delhi, her daughter would be able to earn no less than 15 to 20 000 rupees a month—about 200-300 USD.
The money, Deepti’s mother, reasoned, would be enough to lift the family out of abject poverty and deprivation, enough to plan Deepti’s wedding and bid farewell to the arduous job of selling paperbacks on moving trains.
On the scheduled day, when the man was about to take Deepti, a labourer whose family lives adjacent to her hut informed the police about the possible case of trafficking. The labourer had become suspicious after observing the agent’s frequent visits to the mother-daughter.
When police reached the spot and detained the agent, it was discovered during questioning that he was planning to sell the little girl to a brothel in Delhi.
Ramesh, a 14-year-old boy from the same state, shared a similar predicament. He narrates how a man, probably in his late 40s, offered his parents a handsome sum of money so that he could be adopted and taken good care of.
“My parents, who work as labourers, readily agreed. I was set to go with a man – who we had met a few days before. I was told that I would get a good education, a good life, and loving parents. I wondered how an unknown man could offer us such things at such a fast pace. I told my parents that I smelled something suspicious,” Ramesh recalls.
The next day, as the man arrived to take the boy, the locals, including Ramesh’s parents, questioned him. “We called the government helpline number, and the team arrived after some 20 minutes. When interrogated, the man spilt the beans. He was about to sell the boy in some Middle East country and get a huge sum for himself. We could have lost our child forever,” says Ramesh’s father.
According to government data, every eight minutes, a child vanishes in India.
As many as 11,000 of the 44,000 youngsters reported missing each year are still missing. In many cases, children and their low-income parents who are promised “greener pastures” in urban houses of the wealthy wind up being grossly underpaid, mistreated, and occasionally sexually molested.
Human trafficking is forbidden in India as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution, but it is nonetheless an organised crime. Human trafficking is a covert crime that is typically not reported to the police, and experts believe that it requires significant policy changes to stop it and help victims recover.
Activists and members associated with the Belgaum Diocesan Social Service Society (BDSSS) run various child protection programs for children from poor backgrounds.
One such program is ‘Childline 1098 Collab’. A dedicated helpline has been established to help out children in need. The helpline number is widely circulated across the city so that if anyone comes across any violation of child rights, they can dial the number.
A rescue team will be dispatched and provide immediate help to the victim.
Fr Peter Asheervadappa, the director of a social service called Belgaum Diocesan Social Service Society, provides emergency relief and rescue services for children at high risk. Children and other citizens can dial toll-free 1098, and the team reaches within 60 minutes to rescue the children.
“The cases handled are of varied nature: Sexual abuse, physical abuse, child labour, marriages, and any other abuse that affects children’s well-being,” Asheervadappa told IPS.
He adds that India’s railway network, one of the largest in the world, is made up of 7,321 stations, 123,542 kilometres of track, and 9,143 daily trains, carrying over 23 million people.
“The vast network, crucial to the country’s survival, is frequently used for trafficking children. For this reason, our organisation, and others like it, have argued that key train stops require specialised programs and attention. Such transit hubs serve as important outreach locations for finding and helping children when they are most in need,” he said.
But not only have the trafficking cases emerged at these locations. There are child marriages, too, that concern the activists.
Rashmi, a 13-year-old, was nearly sold to a middle-aged businessman from a nearby city. In return, the wealthy man would take good care of the poverty-stricken family and attend to their daily needs. All they had to do was to give them their daughter. They agreed. “Everyone wants a good life, but that doesn’t mean you barter your child’s life for that greed. It is immoral, unethical, and illegal,” says an activist Abhinav Prasad* associated with the Child Protection Program.
He says many people in India are on the lookout for child brides. They often galvanise their efforts in slums and areas where poor people live. It is there that they find people in need, and they take advantage of their desperation for money.
While Rashmi was about to tie the nuptial knot with a man almost four times her age (50), some neighbours called the child rescue group and informed them. The team rushed to the spot and called in the police to stop the ceremony from happening.
“Child marriages are rampant in India, but we must do our bit. It is by virtue of these small efforts that we can stop the menace from spreading its dreadful wings and consuming our children,” said Prasad.
*Not his real name.
IPS UN Bureau Report